Wednesday, June 23, 2010

0007 - The Pilgrimage to Mount Athos by Professor James S Cutsinger Part 5

Day Four: Saturday, 16 June — Iveron to the Great Lavra

Having been warned against trying to hike the exceptionally tortuous and poorly marked footpath from Iveron to our next destination, the Holy Monastery of the Great Lavra, and not wishing to follow the only alternative land route—one of the newly bulldozed, and very dusty, forest roads, which would have taken us five hours or so—we elected to travel by water. One of the monks in the bookstore was kind enough to telephone the captain of a little boat (named “Saint Athanasios the Athonite”)

that trolls up and down the coast of the peninsula shuttling pilgrims between the monasteries, and arrangements were made for us to be picked up at Iveron’s arsanas

at 10:00 a.m. We had managed to find a couple of rather scrawny apples and a handful of raisins in the guest house and made a breakfast of these as we waited for the boat, which appeared about 10:20. It was a very
quick trip of about thirty minutes down the coast

to the port of the Lavra

and then a climb of maybe three or four hundred feet up to the monastery itself. Drenched with perspiration—as is becoming our custom!—we signed ourselves in at the guesthouse and were assigned what proved to be our poorest accommodations on the Mountain, which we shared with two Venetian pilgrims: a tiny room with even tinier windows would make the night a very hot one—though the windows, we later discovered, were plenty large enough to accommodate the entry of several dozen mosquitoes!

The afternoon was spent with the usual explorations and a short rest, lying on the hillside just outside the east wall

overlooking the sea. The Great Lavra, which stands near the southeastern tip of the peninsula, is the oldest of the monasteries, having been founded in 963

by Saint Athanasios the Athonite (c. 920-c. 1000), and it therefore ranks first in hierarchical order among the twenty “ruling monasteries” of the Mountain. Like most of the others, it is laid out in the form of a small medieval town, surrounded on all sides by high walls, punctuated in this case by fifteen towers.

It is also like several others in that it is undergoing extensive repair. I confess there is something rather disconcerting about the site of a brightly painted red tower crane

rising high above a tenth century Byzantine fortress! Of special interest were a number of icons in the porch of the catholikon featuring scenes from the Last Judgment: brightly colored and gilded saints enjoying the glories of Heaven were set in contrast to gigantic whales with huge teeth consuming torrential downhill flows of naked sinners; or again—to make it clear to the fathers that they themselves are by no means exempt from this final assize!—a ladder crowded with monks, some successfully (if painstakingly) climbing to the top with the help of attending angels, while others were being clawed at and pulled from the ladder by demons.
Vespers was at 6:00 p.m. with two excellent chanters (one at each kliros), and as at Vatopedi there was a third monk shuttling back and forth to intone the verses. I was particularly struck by the periodic lowering, lighting, and raising of small candelabra; one on each side of the church,
they were attached to ropes and raised and lowered by means of pulleys. After a light supper of boiled potatoes, salad, and bread we returned to the catholikon to venerate the relics, including those of Saint Basil the Great, Stephen the Protomartyr, Saint Anne, Saint Andreas (the Apostle Andrew), and of course Saint Athanasios, the founder of the monastery, who is entombed in the narthex.
We were relaxing in the courtyard

afterward when one of the monks, Father Efstathios, came by and volunteered to take us on a short tour of the Great Lavra environs beyond the west wall. He showed us the monastery’s water-driven olive press (no longer in use),

and then took us to the charnel house

where we were able to look through a small slatted gate

and see a few of the twenty-five thousand skeletons—or rather parts thereof—that are housed there, among them those of thirty-five ecumenical patriarchs. Next he took us further up the hill, passing the small cave

of a hermit just a few feet from the trail. “The heart should be a cave,” Father Efstathios quietly commented, “even if you live in the world.”
We came at last to an area strewn with a number of ancient boulders, the remnants of a pre-Christian shrine.

The monk explained that there had been a pagan settlement on this site, though all the inhabitants were long since gone by the time the first Christians arrived on the Mountain in the third or fourth century. One of the boulders had been carved on one side so as to serve as a sundial; another had the faint etching of a face, presumably that of a deity. Nearby was a tiny rock chapel,

built by Saint Athanasios, who had been told by the Theotokos he must erect a church and then celebrate a liturgy in it, all within the space of a single day, in order to drive away the pagan gods who lived there, thus making the place safe for a monastery. Hence the tiny size of the chapel!

A few of the many monkish incongruities we have noticed as we travel the Mountain: a monk driving a backhoe, a monk operating a forklift, and—most curious of all!—a monk at the helm of a speedboat. Or are these incongruities? It has been difficult to understand how, or why, the fathers have begun to allow so much of the “world” to intrude into their life here. While readily acknowledging the problems this poses, one monk with whom we discussed the question observed that historically the technological “level” of Athos has been more or less “up to” that of the outside world, the only real exception being during the period of decline from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, when the Mountain became, unintentionally, more of a Byzantine museum than a living community. With the incursion of electricity, telephones, fax machines, roads, taxis, tower cranes, and so forth, the more typical pattern of the past is reasserting itself. Of course the principial question remains of where one draws the line.

As published in ANAMNESIS the weblog of Professor James S. Cutsinger.

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